Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
October 24, 2003
POLITICS: CIA Cover Stories
Former CIA operative Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in The Weekly Standard about Valerie Plame and what CIA cover stories are really about, and characterizes the charges of Bush Administration critics who have jumped on the story as "wildly overstated":
Cover is the Achilles' heel of the Operations Directorate. If you have a basic understanding of CIA cover, you can figure out why the over-the-top charges against the Bush administration in the Wilson matter make no sense. . . .
The key fact about CIA cover is that the vast majority of all case officers overseas "operate"--try to spot, develop, recruit, and run foreign agents--with little or none of it. . . .
The Bush administration's critics in the Wilson affair should be commended for worrying about the possible "blowback" on foreign contacts when operatives like Valerie Plame are exposed. The odds that any of her contacts are suffering, however, are small: Casual, even constant, open association with CIA officers isn't necessarily damning even in countries that look dimly upon unauthorized CIA operational activity within their borders. . . .
And if Plame, as has been suggested, was overseas as a non-official cover officer, known in the trade as a NOC, her associations are even less at risk, since foreigners have vastly more plausible deniability with NOCs, who are not as easy to identify as officially covered officers. It is important to note that if Plame was ever a NOC, her associations overseas were jeopardized long ago by the Agency's decision to allow her to come "inside"--that is, become a headquarters-based officer . . .
This officially sanctioned "outing" of NOCs is a longstanding problem in the CIA, where non-official cover officers regularly tire of their "outsider" existence ("inside" officers dominate the Directorate of Operations). It is not uncommon to find former NOCs serving inside CIA stations and bases in geographic regions where they once served non-officially, which of course immediately destroys the cover legend they used as a NOC. Foreign counterintelligence services naturally assume once a spook always a spook. Since foreign counterespionage organizations often share information about the CIA, this outside-inside transformation of NOCs can readily become known beyond one country's borders.
Whether or not Valerie Plame was engaged in serious work inside the Agency's Non-Proliferation Center, one has to ask what in the world her bosses were doing in allowing her husband, a public figure, to accept a non-secret assignment which potentially had a public profile? Journalists regularly learn the names of clandestine-service officers. Senior agency officials may well have thought very little of Ambassador Wilson's "yellowcake" mission to Niger, which explains CIA director George Tenet's statement about his ignorance of it. They may have thought Wilson an ideal candidate for this low-priority, fact-finding mission. But neither is an excuse for employing a spouse of an undercover employee if senior CIA officials thought Plame's clandestine work was valuable. The head of the Non-Proliferation Center ought to be fired for such sloppiness.
Read the whole thing.